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Earth Day at 50: Towards a More Inclusive Environmental Movement

by Gary Paul Nabhan

This spring, as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, many social historians are asking questions about the legacy and efficacy of what was initially known as the “environmental teach-ins.”

Does the environmental movement launched a half-century ago reflect the vibrant diversity of the American people? Does that movement address environmental justice issues that disproportionately affect people of color? Many surveys confirm that black and brown communities suffer differentially high exposure to toxics, air pollution, degraded lands and polluted waters.

When U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin pitched the idea of a national day of environmental teach-ins to be held in April, 1970, he could not have imagined that his dream would become the largest global set of science education events in human history. That first Earth Day engaged 20 million people of all cultures, races and creeds in celebration of their relationship with “Mother Earth.”

That relieved Senator Nelson, who had proposed that “our goal is not just an environment of clean air, water, and scenic beauty while forgetting about the worst environments in America. Our goal is for an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings, and all other living creatures.”

In fact, social justice was an expressed aspiration of the first Earth Day’s organizers. When I served as the youngest volunteer at its headquarters in Washington, I was impressed by how much race and poverty were constant concerns running through our discussions. Many of the members of the national organizing team had been civil rights and peace activists in the Mississippi delta, or in urban “Rust Belt” ghettos and barrios.

One team member, Chicano activist Arturo Sandoval, organized an Earth Day rally of Native and Mexican Americans seeking to close a foul-smelling solid waste treatment plant. The disposal site had been plopped down in the midst of one of the poorest neighborhoods in Albuquerque, New Mexico without approval by its residents. Sandoval led a nationally televised protest march to the site, one that ultimately led to the relocation of the waste treatment facility. That 1970 rally may be the first successful environmental justice initiative led by people of color in the U.S.

Five decades later, Sandoval continues to guide the Center for Southwest Culture in Albuquerque, building environmental and agricultural management capacity among Latino and indigenous communities. The center’s programs have assisted dozens of minority communities in producing and marketing affordable organic foods to deal with public health challenges among minority populations.

Many of the organizing team members I have interviewed admit that they struggled to make the first Earth Day more inclusive, hoping to promote both environmental careers and leadership roles among people of color. In fact, national coordinator Denis Hayes sought the guidance of civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy on how to harmonize their movements in the months prior to the first Earth Day.

But such an integration of the environmental and civil rights movements could not happen overnight. It was not until 1991 that African-American activists Dana Alson and Benjamin Chavis, Jr. brought 300 African, Asian, Latino and Native American leaders together for the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Conference. There Alston noted that “people of color gathered not in reaction to the environmental movement, but rather to reaffirm their traditional connection to and respect for the natural world.”

Today federal and state agencies in many regions support centers for training environmental professionals from indigenous, African-American and other ethnic minorities. And in natural sciences and resource management programs at many universities, graduate students of African, Asian, Latino and indigenous descent are increasing rapidly.

But despite these encouraging signs, Green 2.0 reports that “[T]he racial composition in environmental organizations and agencies has not broken the 12% to 16% “green ceiling” that has been in place for decades.”

As Senator Nelson’s daughter Tia recently recalled, “My father’s original vision was of an inclusive, bipartisan environmental movement rooted in social justice.”

Tia Nelson then conceded, “We still have work to do.”

Gary Paul Nabhan, is an Arab-American nature writer and conservation biologist who worked at the first Earth Day’s HQ on two separate occasions. Of Lebanese and Syrian descent, Nabhan is author of a recent retrospective on the environmental and food justice movements since 1970, Food from the Radical Center (Island Press, 2018). Follow him at

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published April 9, 2020 on

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A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future.